Seed Text:

Parable of the Sower (1995), Octavia Butler

       Told in diaristic format, Parable follows Lauren Olamina, a hyperempathic young woman, as she journeys from Southern California to some undefined place in the North with a group of people who are trying to survive societal collapse. Throughout Lauren’s journey, she develops a new belief system called “Earthseed”. The group travelling with Lauren come to accept the tenets of Earthseed (the core of which is that “god is change”) and, eventually, they establish the first Earthseed community in Northern California.
       Beginning her diary at age 17 in 2024 CE, Lauren grows up with a preacher father and many siblings in a gated community near Los Angeles. Lauren’s United States is one defined by Christian far-right extremism, fires, environmental collapse, and increasing corporate reliance on indentured servitude (sound familiar?). When her community is compromised and her family scattered or killed, she decides to travel north. Throughout her long walk away from scarcity and fear (metaphorical and literal), Lauren comes to believe that humanity’s destiny is to travel to other planets and reach “adulthood”. From this comes Earthseed.

Context upon Publication:

       Written in 1995, Butler’s Parable of the Sower pushes to logical extremes (though perhaps not as extreme as one might initially think) the conservative, exploitative America that recrystallized following the Reagan and first Bush administrations. In the novel, explosive corporate interests, environmental collapse, racial and class tensions, massive economic inflation, and a return to modernist concepts of rationality over emotion/sensation converge into a poorly governed apocalypse. Which is to say, in Butler’s America, some bureaucratic structures are still extant in name at least but civilian life has devolved into resource skirmishes and clan mentality. In the years following the collapse of the Soviet Union, writers found rich ground in which to cultivate visions of the future, some more bleak than others. Butler took this opportunity to do some descriptive work, exploring certain trends in the relationship between macroeconomic structures and community/laborer choices. The 80s and early 90s saw the transition from stakeholder capitalism to shareholder capitalism, further distancing workers from the capital produced by their labor. Wages stagnated while profits increased dramatically (Reich 2020). In Parable, this manifests as mega-companies that demand lifetime contracts in exchange for food and housing security within corporate campuses as an alternative to the chaos of non-corporate safety.
       Also reflecting the increased entanglement of government and corporate structures, Butler chronicles a far-right Christian cowboy mentality that permeates throughout government in which “freedom” means reckless pursuit of self interest regardless of consequences. (Frankly, her mid-90s rendition of an Evangelical president is chillingly familiar in 2021.) This “free agent”, typified in the (post) Reagan era as Wolf of Wall Street-like stock brokers, stands in sharp contrast to Parable’s protagonist. Lauren Olamina is a queer Black woman whose gift-burden is hyperempathy, or the involuntary ability to feel what other living beings feel, up to and including death. Throughout the diary entries that make up the novel, Lauren explains her hyperempathy as a matter of fact and an occasional inconvenience but as the thing that ultimately leads her into the philosophy of Earthseed: that god is change and that humanity’s adulthood as a species will take place beyond Earth. Olamina’s entries also provide a wealth of information surrounding how she and her communities survive this slow apocalypse, turning the novel itself into a kind of sacred text or at least as a useful referent. It is this catalogue of techniques and tactics that form the seed of my proposed project.

The Project and Justification:

       From navigating the rules of mid-apocalypse cash management, to water salvaging, to community decision making, to pleasure and intimacy, Parable of the Sower is a treasure trove of information on how to survive a societal collapse that looks a great deal like the situation in which those of us living in the United States currently find ourselves. I first read Parable while living in Central California in 2020 during the worst fire season in almost a century which was, of course, coinciding with the height of a global pandemic, the heightened power and visibility of far-right extremism, and increased corporate control over California’s resources (both natural and social). Needless to say, the novel struck a little too close to home. While I will not further inspect the “predictive” power of science fiction, Parable of the Sower deserves a closer look as a contemporary primary text, a kind of almanac for surviving exceedingly difficult circumstances.
       Theorist and biologist Donna Haraway wrote that “the boundary between science fiction and social reality is an optical illusion” (Haraway 1985), noting that the edge between fiction and fact is leaky at best. In a contemporary context, Parable of the Sower provides a linear, narrative exploration of that leakage. In the style of Le Guin’s carrier bag theory of fiction, Butler produces a protagonist and universe that both do away with boundaries in certain material ways (2019). Lauren Olamina quite literally feels what other beings feel, doing away with the primary boundary of “self” and allowing her to enter more fully into communal life, a quality that allows her to develop not just a way to live/thrive in her own lifetime but a way forward for the human species. Lauren is not inherently non combative but instead knows the toll of conflict more intimately than a traditional hero. Conflict may not be the driving plot-force of Parable, but the container of the story does make room for a world full of violences, large and small. Lauren’s hyperempathy and the wealth of physical-spiritual survival knowledge that she accumulates and shares freely makes her a beacon for contemporary radicals and activists looking to navigate and alter an already altered existence.
       Parable of the Sower is a wonderful narrative in linear form. To augment and draw from this rich story, I propose an Encyclopedia of Apocalypse Survival, the seed of which will be tactics and praxis drawn from Lauren Olamina’s diaries. Much contemporary apocalyptic fiction hinges on self-preservation at any cost (look at Walking Dead, The Road, The Stand for well-written and entertaining examples). Butler, and others, presents an alternative: that survival must hinge on care, community, and preservation of relationships in equal measure. She acknowledges violence and the role of defense, not as the point of survival, but contained within it. The Encyclopedia will pull key knowledge, maps, religious texts, and strategy from Parable and, eventually, other sources for apocalypse survival and make them accessible and navigable hand-in-hand with narrative.

Work Plan:
       To de-linearize this narrative, I will create a website that breaks down apocalypse stories into maps, actionable advice, spiritual texts, gardening tips, water storage solutions, reading lists, community decision making guides, and other resources for those of us looking not just to survive societal upheaval but perhaps make something out of it like Lauren Olamina does. Ideally, the Encyclopedia of Apocalypse Survival will draw from many useful primary texts (I am here using Bal’s 2009 definition of a text as a narrative in any medium) such as A Canticle for Leibowitz (1959), The MaddAddam Trilogy (2003, 2009, and 2013), The Resisters (2020), Snowpiercer (2013) and more to offer a wide range of perspectives on surviving different kinds of collapses. All of these pieces are in conversation with one another, filling in gaps and complicating stories of worldbuilding/ending.
        Along with these creative texts, I will pull from critical and theoretical works to “praxify” the tools laid out in narrative form. Those texts will include Pleasure Activism (2019), Freedom is a Constant Struggle (2015), Octavia’s Brood (2015), Braiding Sweetgrass (2031), and Growing Food in a Hotter Drier Land (2013) among others. The guiding principles of the Encyclopedia and these texts are based in hyperempathy, or having an intimate relationship with consequences and community-centered practice. Not all of us carry the weight of full others’ emotions like Lauren Olamina, but the Encyclopedia can help us imagine and enact futures in which empathy and relationship building are foundational concepts rather than quirks or hindrances.

Works Cited:
Bal, Mieke, and Christine Van Boheemen. Narratology: Introduction to the theory of narrative. University of Toronto Press, 2009.

Butler, Octavia E. 1995. Parable of the sower. New York: Warner Books.

Haraway, Donna. ““A Cyborg Manifesto”(1985).” Cultural Theory: An Anthology (2010): 454.

Le Guin, Ursula K. The carrier bag theory of fiction. Ignota Books, 1986.

Reich, Robert B. The System: Who Rigged It, How We Fix It. Vintage, 2021.